The Peasant and the Farmer: (Re)Constituting Settler Colonialism and Capitalist Relations in the US Imaginary

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Virginia Tech


In the face of catastrophic climate change, scholars and activists have sought to fundamentally transform the existing food system in the United States. One solution being offered, repeasantization, seeks to reinvigorate the idea of the small farm accompanied by principles of ecological production. While invoking the term "peasant" promises something potentially new in the US context, where the farmer is hegemonic, this movement could end up reenacting the failures of the homesteading and back-to-the-land movements which reconstituted settler colonial and capitalist relations in the US imaginary. Using literature from peasant studies, development studies, and Marxist theory, I develop a theoretical orientation towards this potential problem which focuses on how the ideas of the peasant and the farmer are part of a dialectic which has regularly reinforced the existing dominant paradigm. Imagining a new way of thinking, I introduce the concept of the "peasant+ imaginary" in order to outline the ways that the general way of thinking about farming and farmers in the US serves the ideological function of 'othering' alternative practices and subjectivities. Through a historiography which focuses on the structural logic and compulsions of settler colonialism and capitalism, I reconstruct the history of the peasant-farmer dyad in the US context. Through a critical discourse analysis of Farmers' Bulletins, I also show how the United States Department of Agriculture reinforced a settler-capitalist farmer subject-formation in the interest of a "national agriculture" which served to marginalize Black, Indigenous, and non-capitalist ways of being. This dissertation is my contribution to literature which seeks to reimagine the US food system, with the goal of creating a truly sustainable agriculture which nourishes the land and the people who work and live on it.



Peasants, agriculture, sustainability, settler colonialism, USDA